Nestled deep in the mountains of north-east Turkey, harmonious echoes fill the air as a group of people whistle to each other across deep valleys and long distances to communicate.
Locals call this method of speech “bird language” because it sounds more like birds chirping than humans sending their regards or inviting each other to dinner.
And, according to a recent report, the people who speak this musical language are using their entire brain while whistling instead of only the left hemisphere, which contradicts the common notion that language is dominated by the left half of our brains.
“Bird language” can be heard from over 3 miles away — according to New Scientist where we first learned about the language — which was a handy way of long-distance communication before the age of phones and computers.
Scientists have known for years that the left half of our brains are responsible for speech and understanding language whereas the right brain dominates how we process music, pitch, and tone.
So, which part of the brain would control a language based on music, wondered Onur Güntürkün of Ruhr-University Bochum in Germany.
To find out, Güntürkün and his colleagues studied 31 volunteers who lived in a small, mountain town called Kuşköy. All of the volunteers were fluent in Turkish whistling and the native spoken language, Turkish.
Testing the organisation of the human brain
Each whistler completed a psychological listening test: While wearing headphones, they sometimes heard the same syllable in both ears while other times they heard one syllable in one ear and a different syllable in the other. The test sometimes played spoken Turkish and other times Turkish whistling, though only one type of language was played at a single time.
During each test, the listeners were asked to identify which syllable they had heard. Here’s one of the volunteers in the middle of a test:
Because the left half of our brain processes information that goes in our right ear and our right brain processes from the left ear, the researchers could determine which part of the brain was more active during the test by which syllable the listeners identified when the two sounds didn’t match up.
More often than not, when the volunteers heard two syllables in spoken Turkish, they identified the one that was fed into their right ear, which suggests that their left brain was more active at the time.
But when presented two different whistled Turkish sounds, they heard the syllables equally well in both the left and right ear.
The results “tell us that the organisation of our brain, in terms of its asymmetrical structure, is not as fixed as we assume,” Güntürkün told The New Yorker. “The way information is given to us appears to change the architect of our brain in a radical way.”
The residents of Kuşköy are not the first to whistle while they talk. In fact, another whistle language that can be heard in the Canary Islands has been spoken for over 600 years. But the whistlers of the Canary Islands would not be able to understand the whistlers of Kuşköy.
That’s because each whistle language is converted from the native language, which is Turkish for the residents of Kuşköy and Spanish for the people of La Gomera in the Canary Islands. But don’t expect that if you’re fluent in the spoken language that you’ll be able to pick up Turkish whistling — it takes a lot of practice.
“As a native Turkish-speaking person, I was struck that I did not understand a single word when these guys started whistling,” Güntürkün said in a press release. “Not one word! After about a week, I started recognising a few words, but only if I knew the context.”
Güntürkün wonders whether people who suffer from speech impediments after a stroke — which can damage their brain’s left hemisphere — could learn to communicate in a whistle language.
Check out this mind-blowing video of two people speaking in Turkish whistle:
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